So you want to be a name developer. Do you have what it takes? If you don't, where can you get it? And how on earth do you land a naming gig?
Second question first, and the answer is negative. You can't go to school to become a name developer; there are no certificates or degrees in onomastics and--as far as I know--no name-development classes within marketing or advertising programs. (I've been a guest speaker on name development at design and business classes, but only because of personal connections with the instructors.)
There are, however, a few worthwhile books about the craft and practice of naming. My own bookshelf includes Alex Frankel's Word Craft: The Art of Turning Little Words into Big Business; Evan Morris's From Altoids to Zima: The Surprising Stories Behind 125 Famous Brand Names; and Steve Rivkin's The Making of a Name: The Inside Story of the Brands We Buy. Read all three to learn how names are constructed, why some names succeed and others fail, and what kind of people become namers (Frankel and Rivkin are especially good on the last subject).
I also recommend reading naming blogs (see my naming blogroll in the right-hand column) to keep current with naming trends and controversies. I'm enjoying a newish blog, The Name Inspector, written by an anonymous linguist with an interest in brand names. Qwerky focuses with humor and intelligence on "the weirdest Web 2.0 names." Strategic Name Development and Thingnamer report naming news and discuss trademark and other issues.
But you can read all about it and still come up blank when push comes to shove. The very best namers--people who generate 200 to 250 names (or more) per assignment and understand the difference between a clever name and a brandable one--have a combination of attributes that's hard to pigeonhole yet easy to appreciate.
Here's my take on what it takes:
Word lust. Maybe you're a really good Scrabble player or crossword solver. Perhaps you write song lyrics or limericks. You've probably won a spelling bee or two. Your friends and family groan appreciatively at your puns. You see words as puzzle parts and you love hearing the "click" as they fall into place; you know something about rhyme (internal and external), meter, and alliteration. You can't create names unless you're truly besotted with words. But lust is not enough.
Perfect pitch. Brand names are more than words on a page; they're spoken on the telephone, sung in advertising jingles, repeated in keynote speeches. Good namers have a well-developed ear for the sound of language: they're tuned in to the way certain letters explode and others murmur; they understand why some sounds make us giggle and others make us straighten our spines. You can acquire some of this understanding by studying linguistics (knowing a few languages other than your native one helps a lot), but simply being a good listener counts for a lot as well. (It's not called "word of mouth" for nothing.)
A specialty. Good namers are generalists who have one or two obsessions. And those obsessions come with vocabularies. History, science fiction, medieval literature, architecture, asteroids, the stock market--if you know a lot about it, you've got a lexicon to draw from. Warning: don't obsess too much.
Nuts and bolts. If you're a hopeless speller, don't know an infix from an ingress, and think etymology is all about beetles and grasshoppers, you're going to have an uphill slog as a name developer. Naming isn't all magic and instinct; the more you know about how words are derived, spelled, and constructed the more tools you'll have for your craft. I get my linguistics updates from the American Dialect Society e-mail list (free), Language Log (an outstanding blog whose contributors are some of the most prominent linguists in the U.S.), and books such as The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot and Left.
Brand smarts. If you plan to pursue naming as a business, you need to understand business itself. What's a brand? What's a brand extension? What's a logo? What makes one name "right" for Microsoft and "wrong" for Apple? What's hot right now in perfume names, pet-food names, internet telephony names? If you don't read the business press, start right now. And stay on the sofa during the TV commercials: they're required viewing. I even study the ad inserts in the Sunday paper--I don't clip the coupons, but I do take note of interesting (and awful) new names. Strange New Products, a blog, gives me lots of fodder.
Story savvy. Creating a great name is one thing; selling it to the client is another. Persuasive naming requires storytelling skills. How does the name express the company's personality? What does the name say about the product's benefits? Where does the name come from, what does it mean, what can it stand for over time?
Persistence. This may be the toughest skill of all to master. Developing names means pushing through blocks, discovering unexpected angles, and practicing techniques that, as the Reader's Digest would say, "increase your word power." It requires an idiosyncratic combination of detachment (you can't afford to fall in love with one name on the list if it's a name the client rejects) and commitment (there is a solution to this challenge). If you're lucky enough, as I was, to serve an apprenticeship at a first-class branding agency where you're taught practical brainstorming techniques, you're well ahead of the game. If not, you can read about some naming techniques here. And practice, practice, practice. Name your kid's soccer team, or the neighborhood newsletter, or a friend's business--and don't quit after two or three names. Try for at least fifty, and work up from there. Keep name lists by your bed, in the car, at your desk.
How about the really hard question--how to land an actual naming job? No magic formulas here, but a few ideas:
- Talk to graphic designers. They often get logo-design projects that require naming work as well. A substantial percentage of my own work comes from designers who don't have writers or namers on their staffs; I find it especially satisfying to work with a team that understands how to take my names and give them a visual dimension.
- Offer your services to small, local businesses. Go to networking meetings at the Chamber of Commerce, the local business incubator, or leads groups. Tell your contacts you're building your business and offer them an introductory special on naming. One namer I know--like me, a former journalist--is making a transition to full-time name development by specializing in small businesses that can't afford big-agency rates. For clients like these, she doesn't have to generate 250 names; sometimes 25 are all that are needed.
- Send letters or emails to ad agencies, branding firms, and naming companies. They don't have to be in your geographical area; you don't ever have to meet in person. A colleague of mine regularly combs the Internet for agencies that include name development among their services; his response rate is gratifyingly high. He charges a day rate and delivers a list of well-crafted names--no domain or trademark searches, no client contact, just lots of solid work and plenty of checks rolling in.
Any namers who happen to be reading this post--what advice would you give to aspiring name developers?